MS needs nearly $500 million

Eighteen months after Hurricane Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast, nearly $500 million is still required to meet the unmet needs of the poor and displaced in six Mississippi counties, according to the head of a disaster relief organization.

BY SHARON DUNTEN | GULFPORT, Miss. | March 23, 2007

Emergency room sign at St. Mary's Medical Center in San Francisco.
Credit: P.J. Heller

Eighteen months after Hurricane Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast, nearly $500 million is still required to meet the unmet needs of the poor and displaced in six Mississippi counties, according to the head of a disaster relief organization.

And with less than 90 days until the start of the 2007 hurricane season, more than 15,000 homes are still in need of rehabilitation and repair, said Roberta Avila, executive director of the Mississippi Coast Interfaith Disaster Task Force, an umbrella organization for groups involved in the disaster recovery.

"These are the homes of our most vulnerable citizens: disabled, elderly and low-income," the group said.

Avila said that half a billion dollars was needed to help residents who didn't qualify for government assistance and who lacked insurance and personal resources to restore their Katrina-wrecked homes to safe, secure and sanitary living conditions. She said approximately 70,000 homes were destroyed when Katrina hit in August 2005.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency said the unmet needs in the six counties amounted to more than $469 million out of an overall $495 million in unmet needs statewide. Avila said FEMA's figures were a conservative estimate and that the actual amount could go even higher.

FEMA said that it has obligated more than $9.2 billion in disaster aid to Mississippi. That includes $1.16 billion to individuals and families, of which more than $849 million is for housing assistance and more than $319 million for other needs assistance. The agency has also approved $1.18 billion for public assistance projects, such as repairs to public buildings, utilities and roads and bridges.

Avila said that so far, only a fraction of the amount needed for unmet needs has been raised by the task force.

Among the funds received was $30 million from the Mississippi Hurricane Recovery Fund last fall, which was used for unmet needs including home repairs and rehabilitation as well as to pay contractors for such things as electrical and plumbing work. A maximum of $26,200 can be allocated per client, which includes such things as housing assistance and other needs.

"We need more money from the Mississippi Recovery Fund," Avila said.

The task force also received $18 million from personal donations and $12 million from the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund.

To meet the needs of the poor and those who were forced from their homes, 16 Long-Term Recovery Organizations (LTROs) were formed, including three for the Mississippi coastal counties of Hancock, Harrison and Jackson, which suffered the most damage from Katrina. The LTROs were created shortly after the hurricane to provide assessment and recovery plans, as well as coordinate rebuilding and financial assistance.

The $500 million will also help the recovery process for three counties slightly inland from the coast. The influx of Katrina evacuees has changed not only the demographics of Pearl River, George and Stone counties, but also the social needs due to a lack of affordable housing, unemployment and educational expansion, Avila said. The three counties are just north of Hancock, Harrison and Jackson counties.

According to FEMA, Harrison County had the largest unmet needs, totaling $212 million, followed by Hancock with $166 million and Jackson with $75 million. George County's unmet needs totaled $8.4 million, Pearl River had $3.8 million and Stone had $2.9 million, FEMA reported.

Avila said additional funds were being sought from the Salvation Army, the American Red Cross and from the state through its community development block grant program. Grants would also be sought from Church World Service, the Gulf Coast Community Action agency and the Catholic Dioceses, she said.

The lack of funding could impact the hiring of additional case managers. Without those additional case managers, the coordination of volunteer manpower to rehabilitate and rebuild homes could be jeopardized, she said.

"The continued flow of volunteers with specialized skills is critical for the success of Mississippi's long-term recovery efforts," Avila said.

She said the majority of volunteers have come from faith-based organizations.

Organizations that employ case managers have reported a large turnover in those positions due to burn-out, Avila said. Many LTRO case workers are juggling up to 200 cases at a time. She said there are currently 135 case workers working in Mississippi.

The task force recommended that the LTROs hire a psychologist/psychiatrist consultant to assist case managers, who were faced every day with the difficult task of developing recovery plans for clients traumatized by the disaster. The consultant would be a resource and provide support for case managers' mental health.

The task force serves as a resource for the case management process. It also provides an interfaith warehouse in Biloxi. The warehouse distributes building supplies and materials to more than 120 disaster recovery organizations providing relief and recovery efforts. IDTF has a 2007 budget of $500,000.

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